Don’t Mourn the Passing of the New York Times Chess Column
This is a great chance for the Gray Lady to bring its chess coverage into modern times.
By Matt Gaffney
“This is the final chess column to run in The New York Times.” That succinct sentence was appended below Dylan Loeb McClain’s column this past Sunday, which dutifully summarized the results of a major tournament in Baku, Azerbaijan. McClain’s final two sentences: “His position collapsed quickly as his counterplay dried up and he lost two pawns. He soon resigned.”
Apparently, the Times’ decision to kill the chess column isn’t quite final. “We are considering eliminating the chess column in order to keep freelance costs in line,”Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha told Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon. “A final decision for the column (on all platforms) has not been made yet.”
Should anyone, chess fanatics or otherwise, care if the New York Times cuts its weekly chess column, as the Washington Post did in 2010? Not really. As a format, the weekly newspaper chess column is archaic, yet another in the infinitely long list of things rendered obsolete by the Internet. I’m with former world champion Garry Kasparov, who tweeted: “Few will mourn, even as a symbolic loss,” upon learning of the Times column’s apparent death.
Weekly newspaper columns were cherished sources of hard news for America’s chess fans in pre-Web days, since even major tournaments were ignored by the U.S. press. One of the best was grandmaster Robert Byrne’s Times column, which ran from 1972 to 2006. Byrne, who died last year at the age of 84, was a fantastic player, reaching No. 11 in the world at his peak. His writing style was straightforward, lacking much spark but full of authority, opinions, and firsthand anecdotes stretching back to the 1950s. That Byrne was simultaneously making and chronicling chess history meant the column never lacked a strong voice or a reason to exist.
Fast-forward to the present day, where every major tournament is livestreamed—yes, with webcams on the boards and players—and anyone with a laptop can access more information, photos, videos, data, and opinions on the chess world than could possibly be digested. That 1970s or ’80s tournament that thousands of American chess fans would learn about 10 days later from a Times column is now available live, for free, to anyone who cares to watch, with analysis and comments by endless grandmasters in multiple languages. For instance, most of McClain’s last Timescolumn focuses on Fabiano Caruana’s game with Peter Svidler at the Baku tournament. But you can find annotations by a grandmaster, who is a much higher-rated player than McClain, along with seven professional-quality photographs, at the site ChessBase. And that article was published several days before the Times column.
If those who know enough about the game to understand the diagrams in a newspaper chess column can access thousands of times more information, free and instantly, than a weekly column could possibly provide, then why run one at all? The answer is that most weekly newspaper chess columns don’t need to exist and won’t in the near future. The one exception: when there’s an excellent writer and chess professional at the helm, someone like Robert Byrne.
McClain, who succeeded Byrne in 2006, is not that writer, nor are the chess columnists for the Boston Globe and Washington Times. A master-level player, McClain competently and correctly recounts the most noteworthy events of the past week in chess. His summary, though, is essentially interchangeable with any number of others you can find online. McClain and his Globe and Washington Timescounterparts may conduct a few telephone or email interviews here and there. Still, you’d learn more about what’s going on in chess this week by following the world’s top players on Twitter.
What would a relevant, interesting weekly chess column look like in 2014? Here are the three essential characteristics.
It must be written by someone who is deeply involved in the chess world. Summaries of information that is already available online won’t cut it anymore. And since newspapers can’t afford to send columnists around the world to cover these big events firsthand, you need someone who’s already there.
They have to be world-class players, either past or present. Most likely past, since you won’t find too many active top players willing to spend playing and preparation time writing a weekly column for a general audience. But a great player’s personal experiences and ability to draw comparisons with players and games of yore is as essential to interpreting current chess events as it is in any other game or sport.
The person needs to be an engaging writer, highly opinionated, and preferably a bit of a character. Chess readers want informed, strong, and amusing opinions on events in the chess world, not just the who, what, when, and where. Experience writing a weekly column is a huge plus as well.